Women's Sport: Champions Manchester Thunder lay down early marker of intent at the Vitality Netball Superleague Season Opener

Vitality Netball Superleague Season Opener

Elsewhere Team Bath and Saracens Mavericks put in slick performances to overcome their table rivals from last year. Celtic Dragons lost out to Surrey Storm in a thriller and London Pulse pip Strathclyde Sirens to victory. 

The highly anticipated 2019 Grand Final rematch decidedly went to the Black and Yellows of Manchester: 62-55 as a chasing Wasps Netball side was dogged by uncharacteristic errors. 

Establishing a six-goal lead in the first quarter, the defending champions put in a performance so mature one was left wondering if last year’s season ended only last week. 

Targeting the second phase of Wasps’ centre pass, the Black and Gold were unable to penetrate into their attack and found themselves quickly behind.

What stood out most was the efficacy with which Thunder’s two new transfers seem to fit seamlessly into the fold: Liana Leota’s absence was hardly missed with her replacement Ashleigh Neal dictating the attacking play as if she had done for several seasons, and in the defence, Lauren Ngwira undoubtedly asked a lot of questions of England Netball veteran Rachel Dunn.

After a series of switch-ups, the most significant perhaps by the introduction of Australian import Alexia Baker who was able to help Wasps achieve the depth they were lacking in attack, the Coventry based side remained competitive throughout, but the deficit of six, which at times even rose to nine, was too much for them to undo. 

Round one belonged to Thunder. 

Team Bath 72 - 58 Loughborough Lightning

Any residual memories of the sometimes-sticky Team Bath attack that oftentimes plagued the Blue and Yellow last year were comprehensively wiped out in their 2020 VNSL debut.

Captain, and player of the match, Kim Commane was virtually unstoppable in her shooting circle. Complemented by her rotating goal attack, Sophie Drakeford-Lewis, and the endless flow of feeds from the slick centre-court; Loughborough Lightning ultimately lacked answers for the questions being asked.

Whilst the win deservedly belonged to Bath, whether the result was a fair reflection of what Lightning are capable of is thought worth considering. World Cup bronze medalist Natalie Panagarry was forced to the bench with an injury early on in the first quarter, leaving a crucial hole in the defensive unit. Even transfer Samantha May from Wasps to Lightning could not impact the game on her own, without a complete unit the score eventually blew out leaving Bath decidedly victorious. 

Saracens Mavericks 70 - 49 Severn Stars

The day’s greatest winning margin went to Mavericks as they overcame a first-quarter deficit to secure a dominating victory over Stars.

Initially, the momentum belonged to Stars. Melissa Bessell’s new-look side captured everyone’s attention as they confidently disrupted Mavericks’ play and converted their chances. Liana Leota proved to be the asset we knew she would be as she provided a steady stream of the ball into shooters Paige Reed and Georgia Rowe. The score after the first 15 was 11-17 to Stars.

Spurred on by the inspired second-quarter efforts of goalkeeper Razia Quashie Mavericks soon found their rhythm; within five minutes of the restart, the score was levelled at 18-18. Further ramping up their efforts Mavericks showed the Birmingham crowd why they are strong favourites to finish top four this season having fallen short last year. 

Surrey Storm 44 – 43 Celtic Dragons

Despite surprising, nearly everyone with a well-oiled, well-structured outfit Dragons came up agonisingly short in the dying moments against a resurgent Storm.

Having recruited Karyn Bailey to replace South African shooter Sigi Burger, expectations were very much on Storm to breeze to victory, and yet the newly formed defensive duo of young, Jamaican import Latanya Wilson and Abby Tyrrell relentlessly wreaked havoc for Storm in their shooting circle.

Supported by an impressive full-court defence Dragons found all sorts of turnover ball, frustrating their opponents no end. Trying out different combinations with different faces coming on and off the court, Storm looked to find answers to their general tentativeness in the attack. The decline in shooting statistics from Dragons, however, kept the door open for Storm and in the final moments, even with some time-delaying penalties, the Surrey-based side took the win from right under Dragons. It certainly felt like a very fortunate escape. 

London Pulse 53 – 51 Strathclyde Sirens

If every game has a story to tell to the narrative behind this match lies in the shooting statistics.

Sirens shot at 67% throughout their game; they had 10 more shots at goal than Pulse and yet they lost by two. 

Despite player of the match Zanele Vimbela of South Africa producing turnover ball after turnover ball in Pulse's shooting circle, the Scottish side were unable to capitalise on her efforts in their attacking end, enabling Pulse to take the win with their own superior shooting statistics.

As for the London side, crucial to their success over Sirens were the substitution calls made by new head coach Sam Bird. The injection of Funmi Fadoju at goal defence was a particularly crucial change. Their focus now will certainly be on discipline surrounding their unforced errors, especially as they intend not to finish at the bottom of the table again.

Talking point: International imports shine

With a record-breaking crowd gathering at Arena Birmingham to watch the season opener unfold Saturday was certainly another win for UK netball.

But underneath the real win was for international imports. 

Two-player of the match awards went to this season's freshest imports and most notably, both were on the losing side: Vimbela of South Africa took the award for Sirens and Wilson for Celtic Dragons.

Another bright talent that showed her potential early on was Towera Vinkhumbo for Severn Stars. Partnering up with Ama Agbeze, the Malawi Queen at goalkeeper was unafraid to fly out of her circle and challenge England Rose Georgia Fisher time and time again. Barker at Wasps too had a very promising debut for the Black and Gold.

These players were all game-changers in their respective matches, but crucially their performances collectively change the game. They are raising the standard of the Superleague and forcing the native talent to evolve, compromise and grow. 

This has only been round one but their continued development will be exciting to watch. Roll on round two. 

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